Moviegoing in The COVID Era: Going to the Movies is Now a Political Act

Any movie theater chains permitting mask-free moviegoing are making a clear political statement, even if they think they're not.

Amc Regal Theaters (rblfmr / Shutterstock.com)
Shutterstock

Misadventures in Moviegoing is an ongoing column that explores the ever-evolving state of seeing movies in theaters.


Going to the movies can feel democratic. You’re voting for the box office hit of the weekend when you buy that ticket. Traditionally, the primary political element to the pastime of moviegoing has been the choice of which movie to see, and where. Now moviegoing has becoming politicized thanks to the ironic words of AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron in a recent statement about plans to reopen their theaters in July in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said Aron about a rule encouraging but not requiring patrons to wear masks anywhere inside AMC movie theaters. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask-wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.”

AMC joined the other two largest chains (Regal and Cinemark) and some smaller companies in this plan to merely suggest face masks. Most theater owners have been making their employees wear masks but not their customers. All around, such a decision is because of the unfortunate politicization of mask-wearing and the backlash that businesses have gotten for demanding this public health measure for the safety of everyone. But Aron was the first CEO to really admit to the reasoning out loud. And by doing so, he has invited a political controversy.

Mask-wearing during a pandemic should not be a political matter. And requiring masks worn inside a business is not political. It’s a rule based on the advice of health officials and a precautionary measure for the safety of workers and customers alike. Deciding to not require masks because of their politicization is ultimately a political act anyway. AMC and the other chains making the same rule were siding with those who won’t wear a mask as influenced by their politics.

The comment about forcing “those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary” was the kicker because it’s hardly the look of a company making its own informed guidelines. What about the people who believe strongly that they have a right to talk during the movie? Well, even telling customers to be quiet is a suggestion, albeit one that can lead to being kicked out if it’s too much of a nuisance for the majority of the audience. And that’s a reluctant policy.

Most rules of moviegoing come down to those that are enforced because they’re related to the law (i.e. anti-piracy measures and anything pertaining to health codes and employee protections), those that are supposed to be basic etiquette (not talking or texting), and those that favor a majority of people putting money into the company, whether it be customers or shareholders. This supposed apolitical non-rule fell into the last category and therefore treated the non-believers as the larger influence.

Why would Aron trust that “the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks” if he didn’t accept that the company would be profitable appealing only to that “vast majority”? It was a dismissal of those people who believe strongly that masks are necessary, a lot of whom will not be going to theaters that don’t require all customers to be wearing them. The backlash that Aron received for his comments and AMC’s decision was presumably viewed, by the industry as a whole, as a vocal minority. Until its voice was heard too loudly.

Whatever the true size of the dissenting group, AMC’s decision was quite visibly scrutinized on social media, and eventually, these calls for a boycott of AMC (or movie theaters overall) when they reopen wound up having a lot of weight. The swiftness of a change in planned policy was almost as surprising as the original decision in the first place. The negative reaction had to be considered a possibility by AMC’s board given the company’s well-publicized financial troubles this year and their own previously-announced boycott of Universal titles, neither of which is helping drive more customers to their theaters. They don’t need any more bad publicity.

As movie theaters prepare to reopen and studios continue to bet on July as being a good time to start releasing big movies into theaters again, film critics and other entertainment journalists have been debating how to handle the return of moviegoing. Do they review movies opening theatrically but include an asterisk with each one recommending readers wait for the home video release? Do they provide transparency regarding how they saw the movies if they did so in safer conditions?

Refusing to support the movies gambling with people’s lives and the decision to just stay home aren’t quite political acts aside from, again, the matter of capitalistic choice (though future continued boycott of some chains could be political). Meanwhile, going back to the movies may be a political act if it’s part of a stand for “freedom,” especially if done so by the mask-averse at a chain not requiring masks. It wouldn’t be the first time that moviegoing would be seen as a political act, though it might be the first time just going to any movie at all could be considered such.

Those at risk and the more cautious are going to stay home for their own safety regardless of mask policy. Others still wary of moviegoing even with mask requirements will be holding back and watching what happens, to see if any outbreaks of the coronavirus can be linked to any movie theaters. Aron has responded to the question of what AMC will do if that happens. Obviously the company doesn’t want such bad news. He also implied an expectation for word of mouth about AMC’s “Safe & Clean” measures eventually bringing in the more concerned.

From a business standpoint, AMC was always having to be as smart as possible and doing as much as they can with what they can control. Think about how difficult a mask requirement will be to enforce in auditoriums anyway. Particularly when concessions are involved. You can’t eat and drink with your mouth covered by a mask. Besides, if you’ve ever been to a movie theater ever, you know what other people are like. Anyone truly fearful of the circumstances at play won’t likely be rushing to the movies any faster with masks required in theaters.

AMC and other major chains (Regal and Cinemark quickly amended their own policies to require masks following AMC’s lead) at least needs to respect those staying away for now by also allowing further pausing of their loyalty program subscriptions. And as for those theaters still not mandating mask-wearing, perhaps they could just offer specific screenings that do require them (that sounds more like something Alamo Drafthouse would do — but they are requiring customers to wear masks for all shows). Or, if these theater owners want to imply a preference for masks, how about incentivizing mask-wearing?

AMC was taking a huge twofold risk with their customers with their initial decision. They were risking moviegoers’ lives while also risking their own business with such a controversial position and the comments backing it up. The risks were, of course, intertwined. By changing course, they’re steering more in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait a month to find out if even wearing a mask to the movies is as good an idea as any or if staying away was always best. For the sake of human lives, I hope the general decision to re-open before the coronavirus is truly gone is not as bad as it seems.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.